Bhutan, for years closed off from the rest of the world, seems like a little slice of Himalayan heaven.
lights do not exist (there was one set in capital Thimphu, but they were
removed for being unfriendly), strict conservation laws mean trees still cover
almost 75% of the country, and productivity is measured in Gross National
This is a land of
awesome mountains – some of the highest in the world – thick-forested valleys
and imposing dzong, monastery fortifications often perched on
cliffsides. It is a place where landscapes are dotted with blue poppies, snow
leopards and innumerable banners of bright flapping prayer flags.
Bhutan takes its Buddhism seriously. The religion pervades all levels of life,
resulting in peaceful temples, red-robed monks scurrying along the streets, a
mind-blowing number of deities and legends, and a widespread belief in practicing
kindness and loving to all sentient beings.
Pay by the day
Paradise does not
come cheap. In order to maintain the country’s pristine nature and spiritual
integrity, the Government charges a hefty minimum fee to enter the country.
Currently, visitors in peak season (February to May and August to December)
must pay at least $200 per person per night; in the low season (January and
June to July) the fee is $165. The government plans to increase the rate to $250
This cost covers
virtually all your expenses: accommodation, meals, a licensed Bhutanese guide,
internal transport and trekking arrangements, should you wish to stretch your
legs (the country offers some of the best hiking in the Himalayas).
is not all encompassing. There are some super-luxurious properties in Bhutan
that will set you back significantly, on top of the fee. But stays under canvas
or in more mid-range lodgings should be covered.
Also note, higher
fees apply if you do not travel as a group: single travellers pay an extra $40
per night, on top of the minimum day rate; couples an extra $30 per person per
night. So you might want to find some like-minded friends...
No going solo
A guide, and likely a
separate driver, come as standard in Bhutan. Independent travel is forbidden.
If there is
something you particularly want to experience – a certain tsechu
(festival) or maybe an archery lesson (the national sport) – you can
tailor-make a trip with the help of a specialist tour operator. But all
itineraries must be approved by Bhutan’s Tourism Council, and accompanied by a
operator will also arrange your transport to Bhutan – you cannot book flights
independently. Bhutan has just one international airport, at Paro (a scenic, if
white-knuckle, landing amid the mountains); flights on national carrier Druk
Air fly in from Nepal, India and Thailand. It is also possible to enter
overland, but you will still need your travel plans – itinerary, visa, etc –
arranged in advance by a tour operator.
Is it worth it?
Nepal is just over the
mountains and India is down south. Both have snow-capped Himalaya, both have
fascinating religions, and both are cheap as chips. Is it worth spending all
that money on a trip to Bhutan?
Mostly, yes. If
you just want a pretty trek in pretty mountains, on a limited budget, spend
your rupees elsewhere. But Bhutan is unique. And who knows for how much longer.
In 2008 the country switched from being a kingdom to a democracy, a decision
taken by the much-loved King himself. There is a desire to attract more
tourists; three regional airports are being built and new areas are opening up,
such as Merak Sakten, in the east.
development, and tourist footfall, will this singular, spectacular nation be
able to maintain its spiritual and natural allure? Who knows. So visit now –
some things are just priceless.
The article 'Welcome to Shangri-La' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.